Renounce the rake to nurture the birds

The Eastern Towhees returned to our garden this fall. If you’ve never seen one before you can imagine a robin dressed for the prom in full tux.  They are big, like mockingbirds, with suave-looking dark wings overtop of orange and white chests.  Although not rare or even threatened, they are an uncommon sight in an tiny urban yard like ours.

They are also entertaining hunters.  We had fun watching from inside the window as they picked over leaves, kicking backwards to uncover tasty insect meals.
I found it very validating to see those birds again this season.  You see, I spend a lot of time trying to convince people to plant nectar-rich flowers and seed-bearing perennials, and often tout the habitat value of the berries we leave on our shrubs all winter.  But I think what might be attracting the largest amount of wildlife to our urban yard is something that costs us nothing and has allowed us to reclaim countless hours each fall:  We gave up raking.

I have no proof for this, of course, other than observations and anecdotes.  But we only began seeing the towhees and warblers in the backyard after we stopped removing the leaves three years ago.  I assume those birds have added our yard as a migration pit stop because there’s more food available here now than there was before.

Increasing the biodiversity of the yard begins at the bottom of the food chain, it would seem.  To get birds you need to feed them, and although contraptions full of seed can be entertaining, they always proved to be magnets for rodents in my neighborhood.  It’s a real drag to spend lots of money to feed a bunch of fat rats.  Besides, many of the migrating birds need insects to eat, and do not care for sunflower, thistle and millet.

Not raking in order to feed the birds also justifies something which might otherwise seem like shirking one’s urban duty.  I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the journey to becoming a nation of surburbanites, we all forgot how the trees work.   We covet their shade and color and adore their splendid architecture, but have learned to treat their leaves like embarrassing droppings or litter.  Raking is considered a civic duty.

raking leaves

In fact, when I was growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s, we actually put our leaves out on the curb in plastic bags with the garbage.  I’m sure we filled large parts of our local landfill needlessly, making our yards tidy but wasteful testaments to our neighborhood pride.

Now, the sucker trucks come like noisy locusts each fall to the streets of Montgomery County and take away the messy leaves to be composted and resold back to us as mulch and soil-fortifying products like LeafGro.  This is real progress – the composting saves landfill space and is an income generator for some municipalities.

But it seems to me there’s still room for improvement.  Sucker trucks burn fossil fuels, they are noisy and messy and they cost a lot of money to maintain and staff.

Leaves, if left in place, nourish the soil for free.  They improve your yard’s ability to hold moisture, reduce pollution and run-off, among other things.  We really need no middle man in the form of a sucker truck driver.  The leaves are meant to be there to augment the life cycle of the urban tree canopy as they would in a forest.  As they sit they become home to loads of tiny insects which the birds need as fuel on their journeys up and down the continent.

colorful leaves

I’ve also begun to think of the leaves as aesthetically pleasing when left in place. Its like having a slice of a state park in your own yard to have all that outside the back door.  Huge tree-filled lawns full of grass and free of leaves naked, barren and boring to me now.  Like an empty house that seems to expand once the furniture in put in place, our yard gained character and depth once the leaves were left to decay slowly.

I like to stroll around with my coffee sometimes and kick through their random patterns.  Fallen sticks make juxtaposing angles and add composition to the masterpiece.  Unlike a lawn which always needs tidying and primping, the leaf carpet also hides all imperfections.  When the colors of summer have faded they fill the void for visual interest.  It is the opposite of a Japanese Zen garden with its fussy raked patterns of gravel; my eyes travel over the zigzag edges just as they would a Jackson Pollack painting.  Its peaceful, rejuvenating and inspiring.

I realize not every yard is ready to be leaf-covered.  Sidewalks and streets can get dangerous and slippery if not cleared.  Storm drains must be cleared to prevent backups.

Playing fields demand green grass.  Even my own veggie gardens get a winter blanket of fresh compost and straw and my sunny perennial beds would suffocate under a thick carpet of leaves.  And both are neatly bisected by a allay of green lawn. But under the trees on the other side,  the leaves quickly break down and form a rich soil where bluebells, violets, wood asters thrive in the spring and summer.

I do have to patrol the yard several times a year to root out those marauding invasive exotics such as English ivy, which would quickly move in and take over if allowed to grow unchecked among the leaf litter.  It’s an occasional task that seems much easier and more pleasant than raking.

If you are thinking about giving up the habit of raking this year, you might want to check out the website of a group based in New York’s Hudson River Valley called Leave Leaves Alone! This modest little group has assembled a pretty good case against raking, complete with testimonials and some scientific research on the topic.  Fine Gardening magazine also ran an excellent article which examines the science of shredding leaves to make them useful soil additives without killing the grass.  The full article can be found online at:

About the Author

Alison Gillespie
Alison Gillespie is the Sligo Naturalist. She writes about environmental and gardening issues here and on her blog

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